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When Servant Leaders MUST Fire Someone

There is no better way to help people achieve at their highest potential than servant leadership. Servant leaders, committed to the mission, the organization, and their people, work to find more effective means to achieve, strengthen their organization, and build up their people. When the leader’s concern for people is sincere and trusted, expectations can be discussed openly and problems corrected. Occasions when someone has to separated from the organization and the team are few.

An Inescapable Responsibility
However, there are situations where a servant leader must take action to remove someone. Some of these situations are — or should be — easy decisions.

  • Abuse. Leaders are sometimes responsible for employees who work with vulnerable populations: children, elderly, sick or other group unable to defend themselves well. Unfortunately, certain people take advantage of those who are vulnerable. Numerous scandals in recent years include cases where abuse was covered over rather than decisively confronted. Leaders failed miserably by prioritizing protection of the organization from embarrassment over protection of the weak from abuse.  In these situations there can be no equivocation. A servant leader must terminate such a person’s employment. In many jurisdictions a police report is mandatory. In this case a servant leader exercises authority to protect those who are weak and unable to protect themselves.
  • Violence. Servant leaders must stand firmly against violence in the workplace. There can be cases where anger gets out of hand and the situation can be managed with clear correction and apologies. Counselling might be in order if someone has an problem with temper. But violence toward other employees steps beyond a red line. Even threats of violence can be too much. Servant leaders will not permit threats of harm toward people on their teams. It is not a contradiction of servant leadership to send such people packing. It is a necessary expression of the responsibilities of servant leadership.
  • Dishonesty. There are situations in which a servant leader serves by standing up for integrity. Sooner or later you are likely to encounter someone who is dishonest. Some years ago I discovered that a high-ranking employee in a trusted position was diverting substantial sums of money to his personal use. At first the employee denied the theft, and then when confronted with irrefutable evidence argued that he should retain his position because he would repay the losses and not do it again in the future. Unquestioned trust was essential to performance of this employee’s duties. Although for various reasons we chose not to press charges, we had to terminate the man’s employment.

Many performance problems arise from lack of skill or information. These can usually be resolved with training and improved communication. Dishonesty is different. The problem in these cases is not inability to perform the task or lack understanding about the nature of the task. The problem is a deficit in character, and the roots of character failure are usually deep and resist easy solutions.

Personal integrity is essential to servant leadership and, by extension, servant leaders must insist on integrity in others as well. Failure to stand for integrity inevitably erodes trust in the leader and in reality becomes a lack of integrity in the leader, too.

  • Rebellion. Servant leaders normally have authority commensurate with those responsibilities and that includes authority to confront people who refuse to abide by the rules and policies of the organization. In cases of violations, a servant leader’s first efforts will be to explain the rule or policy and call for correction through compliance. Hopefully, these steps may be sufficient to gain correction, but sadly there are cases where people persist in their violations, resisting all attempts at correction. In such cases termination can be the only way to re-establish operation within the approved limits. I once had an employee who was required to file a written request for authorization prior to certain actions. The employee objected to this limitation on what he regarded as his authority and continued to act without authorization. After several warning failed to gain correction, the employee was fired.

Rebellion or Innovation? At this point there can be a problem. Innovation and creativity often require going beyond traditional limits. Many innovators have been perceived as rebellious. They may be labelled “mavericks,” people who make their own decisions and set a different course. A leader who acts to discourage every violation of current standards and processes risks choking out the kind of innovation and change necessary to building a vital future for the organization. This presents a dilemma for servant leaders. Is the case in front of you a matter of rebellion that must be decisively confronted or innovation that needs to be encouraged?

The answer can be difficult, but over the years I’ve developed a guideline for distinguishing the cases. If you ask an innovator to explain why they are not following the current rules, they will usually point to reasons rooted in accomplishment of the mission. The issue for them is effectiveness in getting the job done, and they will be able to explain why the existing rules have become a barrier to performance. Rebels are different. They will raise objections related to their personal authority. They will suggest that they have superior judgement to others. They may threaten that if they are not allowed more freedom the organization will suffer. In other words, innovators are loyal to the mission and prioritize achieving it whereas rebels point to themselves and their supposed privileges. If a leader listens carefully, you can usually pick up on the signals that make the difference.

  • Uncorrectable Performance. Among the more difficult cases for servant leaders to manage involve employees with a performance problem that in spite of repeated attempts cannot be corrected. That is, the employee wants to perform to the necessary level but for some reason, known or unknown, can’t do it. Training, coaching, and other forms of help have failed. What do you do?

Sometimes the problem is a mismatch between the employee and the job they have been given. The leader may be able to find a better match somewhere else in the organization. In small organizations, however, or sometimes even in larger ones, there is no other position available or possible. In this case, it is very likely that a servant leader whose obligation to serve the organization by achieving results may have to terminate the person’s employment. In this case, it can be helpful to think of the task as helping the employee to find a position in another organization that is better suited. To help this along, the organization may give the employee a longer amount of time or a more generous termination settlement to help in the transition. In some cases we have have engaged employment specialist to support employees in the transition.

Deny, Blame, Ignore. As a servant leader you should give close attention to how the process of working with an under-performing employee develops. After many years of working as a leader I learned to recognize a pattern that distinguishes correctable cases from those that have less possibility of a good outcome. The first symptom of the problem pattern is denial. You raise an issue of performance with the employee, and instead of moving into conversation about to correct the issue you find yourself arguing with the employee over whether there is a problem. No matter how patiently you explain the issues, the employee persists in denying that there is any difficulty.

If you succeed in getting past the denial by clearly demonstrating that the employee’s performance really is substandard, the next element of the problem pattern may appear: blame. Well, yes, there is a problem, the employee agrees but adds that it is not their fault. The real problem is something else external to the employee.  It may even happen that the employee will turn the blame around and suggest that you as leader are the problem because of your own lack of attention, competence, or some other fault in you.

At this point you must seriously evaluate the assertion. The employee may be correct. They may need more information, better tools, cooperation from another department, or any number of other resources that are lacking. Maybe, you really are the problem. Some of the most difficult cases I have had to handle are ones that required me to examine myself more deeply than was comfortable. Sometimes it was true. I was the problem and correction required me to change.

Unfortunately, in other cases the employee’s pattern of externalizing the problem by blaming other things amounts overall to an attempt to evade personal responsibility. As a servant leader you must insist that the employee commit their responsibilities and take steps to remedy their lack of performance.

If you can move past denial and blame, what happens next will determine what eventually happens. Hopefully, although the conversations have been difficult and perhaps long, the employee will eventually understand that there is a need within them for correction. If so, good. However, at this point the third part of the problem pattern may appear: ignore. The employee, in spite of all your efforts, simply continues to do what they always have. They have become trapped in the pattern of deny, blame, ignore, and at this point you have little choice but to terminate their employment.

Compassion and Courage
One of the pre-eminent characteristics of servant leaders is sincere compassion for people. We all have weaknesses. Anyone who has risen to a position of leadership has gotten there with the help of others and forgiveness for mistakes along the way. There is no greater compromise of servanthood than to fail in extending similar compassion and gracious forbearance to others. Servant leaders take pleasure in giving extra effort and care to support employees toward good performance.

But servant leaders must also have the courage to do what is right when the situation demands it. Almost always, in these difficult situations, there is a tendency to wait too long before making the difficult decision to release an employee. One of the most common things you will hear servant leaders say in these situation is, “I waited too long. I should have taken action sooner.”  To delay doing what is necessary does not serve either the organization or the failing employee well. The organization cannot long or easily suffer subpar performance. Other team members are not served well by tolerating a member who acts inappropriately or does not contribute their portion of the work.

Compassion for servant leaders motivates great patience. Courage compels honest and forthright action. Navigating wisely between these poles is among the most important requirements of true servant leadership.


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Guy Saffold

I’ve observed leaders for many years, always asking the question, “What should a person do to lead in more Christian ways?” It’s often not an easy question to answer in the midst of the day-to-day events that whirl around a leader. Here I explore some of the dilemmas and answers. I also post some devotional thoughts about the application of biblical teaching.